Looking for the ‘grand strategy’ in an Anglo-Indian partnership

Posted on July 26, 2010


The Prime Minister is going to India this week, heading a large team that includes Cabinet ministers and leading companies. ‘[It] is likely to be the most heavyweight British delegation to the country since the Raj came to an end’, according to one report. George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, made a similar point in an article for The Daily Telegraph. The delegation is the ‘strongest’ to visit India from Britain in modern times, he wrote, and it is a sign of the seriousness of our attempt to create a new partnership with the country. ‘Our coalition Government is profoundly committed to a new special relationship with India – between our governments, our businesses and our peoples.’ Alongside closer economics ties, Osborne highlighted a strategic aspect. ‘We want India to become a special partner in tackling a range of international challenges.’ This includes combating terrorism, but India is sometimes suggested as also a counterweight to China in an eastern balance of power – one that is gradually becoming the world’s centre of gravity. From Britain’s perspective, however, it is difficult to see the strategic potential to any special partnership with India.

Speaking at the Foreign Office earlier this month, William Hague made a bleak point to his audience. ‘The world has changed and if we do not change with it Britain’s role is set to decline with all that that means for our influence in world affairs, for our national security and for our economy.’ Part of his solution is cultivating strong bilateral relationships with emerging powers, which will increase our global leverage as we edge away from Europe and lose our ‘uniqueness’ to the United States. David Cameron made this message the overarching theme to his trip to America last week, and for years both he and the Foreign Secretary have seen India as the emerging power to court. The Prime Minister first paid a visit to the country in 2006, and made clear his intentions then. ‘Serious and responsible leadership in the twenty-first century means engaging with far greater energy in parts of the world where Britain’s strategic interests will increasingly lie.’ Talking about a new strategic partnership is easier than achieving one, however, and these well-meaning intentions may prove worthless when it comes to the nitty-gritty of great power diplomacy. Shashank Joshi has written an excellent piece about the kind of concessions that Cameron and Hague would have to give to India to create the kind of partnership they desire. One such concession is to acquiesce in Kashmir being considered an ‘internal’ matter for India and to be dealt with between it and Pakistan, which would contrast with the Labour government’s ham-fisted attempts to intervene in the dispute. This has been signalled by Hague already. ‘Our approach would not be to tell those countries what to do, they must take forward their own bilateral relations’. As Joshi points out, however, this could affect our relationship with Pakistan who furnishes us with significant intelligence on potential terrorist plots. Thus from a counterterrorism point-of-view, our interests are arguably better served by Pakistan at the moment than India.

The ‘counterweight’ argument is also questionable, not only from Britain’s ‘grand strategic’ perspective but also as a proposition. With regard to the former point, we are in danger of making favourable outcomes into unnecessary vital interests. A stable balance of power in the Far East is a favourable outcome in our mind, but it is not a vital interest. The United States has more at stake in building up India as a check on China and is better placed to do it than we are. ‘No other state can assist India’s rise to the same extent as the United States’, the former diplomat Chandrashekhar Dasgupta has written. ‘Relations with Washington must, therefore, be accorded top priority in our foreign policy.’ Those who take this counterweight line also assume that India wants to have this role and is capable of fulfilling it. Although there is some suspicion of China in the country, there is also an aversion to being used to contain it. Dasgupta argues that India should not take part in any such scheme. ‘The rise of the two Asian mega states rests on solid domestic foundations; neither can be “contained” by external forces.’ It is important to realise too that diplomatically and militarily, China is way ahead of India for the foreseeable future. Thus it is difficult to see how a special partnership would benefit Britain ‘grand strategically’ also.

‘India matters’, the Chancellor wrote this weekend. This is true, and there is a lot we can do to help the emerging power strategically, from Kashmir and Pakistan to working for its permanent membership of the UN Security Council. It is difficult to work out what India can do for our strategic position, however; which is separate from the many trade and investment opportunities it offers. ‘The low-hanging fruit, particularly economic agreements and lofty rhetoric, will dominate the first stage of the diplomatic agenda’, writes Joshi. But the partnership will only become special if we can identify mutual strategic benefits that go above and beyond our relationships with many other countries, including the United States.

A special thanks to Shashank Joshi and Vijay Vikram for providing me with some handy research material